The Diplomacy Of Sport: The AFL Arrives In China

Australia’s bilateral relationship with China is largely viewed through a tight lens of economic rationalism. Like globalisation, the relationship is often judged by the effectiveness of, and efficiency in securing economic outcomes such as market access, free trade agreements and terms of trade.

But diplomacy is messy. Australia must balance its economic relationship with China with its strategic relationship with the United States in a world where geopolitics has been replaced by geoeconomics – a term coined by Edward Luttwak as the “grammar of commerce but the logic of war” or the way in which governments influence and advance national interests by leveraging their economic influence.

Recent events in the disputed South China Sea, China’s growing soft power and influence as well as the nation’s importance in Australia, highlights the tension of this conflicting two track policy position. Is it possible to advance Australia fairly in a regional environment where it has no major strategic influence? How do we broaden our bilateral relationship beyond business?

Sport may be the answer.

Sport speaks a universal language of hope, despair and courage. It provides nations with a benchmark for success on a world stage, a de facto foreign policy that provides international bragging rights to domestic audiences.

Australia loves sport.

Sporting success provides this new world nation with a ready-made narrative of rivalries, villains and national heroes that other countries have created through myths, martyrs and conflict.

Australia has a competitive international sporting profile that includes international participation, domestic competitions, and hosting major sporting events. In 2015, Julie Bishop, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, launched the Federal Government’s Sports Diplomacy Program. The program was designed to “reach broader audiences than traditional diplomacy activities allow” and to “inform, engage and influence key demographics, particularly youth, emerging leaders and women and girls.”

Last year, China released a five-year sports development plan that aims to build their domestic sports industry to over RMB¥3 trillion (AU$620 billion) or 1% of GDP by 2020. The plan includes a comprehensive strategy to boost Chinese football capabilities with 7,000 pitches, 20,000 academies, 500 public fitness centers in counties and 15,000 fitness facilities in villages and towns, 10,000 multi-functional playing grounds averaging 1.8 square kilometers of sporting space for each town by 2020. Alongside football, basketball and volleyball rounded out the plan’s “three big balls” that seeks better placements and qualifications in international tournaments for both men’s and women’s teams. This ambitious plan has been reinforced by private Chinese business, who have heavily invested in global football brands such as Manchester City, and paid astronomical transfer fees to entice international players into the Chinese Super League, which has also received record broadcast revenue.

China clearly has the demand, as articulated by the government, and Australia can supply the expertise and knowledge transfer through sports diplomacy that could deepen our bilateral relations and provide leverage within the context of geoeconomics.

An example of sports diplomacy was on display last weekend in Shanghai when the AFL hosted Port Adelaide and Gold Coast in the very first in-season game for premiership points at Jiangwan Stadium. The match highlighted Australia’s capabilities in delivering an off-shore event that attracted over 10,000 people to attend the game in a retro-fitted art deco facility with less than 12 months of preparation. Despite only 2-3,000 local Chinese attending, the fact that 5,000 South Australians travelled over, many for their first visit to China, highlights the opportunity for people to people exchanges through sport.

The whole enterprise was also the result of a formal sports diplomacy through the Government of South Australia and Port Adelaide Football Club, who organised visiting Chinese delegations to be hosted at Adelaide Oval games. Mr Gui Guojie, Shanghai CRED CEO, who at the time was bidding on the S.Kidman & Co asset, was so impressed by the game that he later provided a multi-year, multi-million dollar sponsorship to the club.

The partnership was announced as part of the 2016 Australia Week with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Shanghai, where the idea of a game was first formally raised. Although Shanghai CRED’s initial Kidman approach was blocked by the Foreign Investment Review Board, Gui Guojie subsequently provided a 25% stake in a joint venture with Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting successful bid. Both Guo and Rinehart were at the match on Sunday. The fact that Guo is politically well connected and is a member of the Shanghai committee of the People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), highlights that the AFL game was a clear result of sports diplomacy. Guo echoed this during the 2016 sponsorship announcement when he said “This partnership will promote and share the beauty of AFL in China and will enlighten and enrich our sporting culture” and “this moment will be firmly framed in the sport’s history of our country”.

Port Adelaide invested heavily in the China exercise with 35 non-football staff travelling over and organising three corporate areas and a trade expo outside the ground as well as travel packages, local tours, and gala dinners. This effort resulted in an additional 12 new partners, many from China or from Australia seeking to engage with the China market, and this provides comfort for the AFL and the Australian public who view our China relationship by economic outcomes.

The South Australian Premier led a 200 strong trade delegation, the Victorian Trade Minister brought food and wine exporters, and the Queensland government sponsored the match. Private companies brought Chinese clients and contacts to watch the game, and it was used as intended to become a bridge to showcase a unique Australian cultural product that showcases resilience, mateship and creativity.

Sport was used to normalise the Sino-American relations through Ping Pong diplomacy and perhaps, AFL will lead the opportunity for Australia to engage and benefit from China’s demand for content and increased capabilities through sports diplomacy.

This article first appeared in China Insiders – – Tom Parker attended the match and provided some preliminary advice to the AFL on stadium selection in Shanghai. He was the AFL’s consultant for the exhibition match between Melbourne and Brisbane at the same venue as part of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.